Friday Favourite: Always Train Your Worst Skills

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on February 8, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From December 7, 2009, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Always Train Your Worst Skills.

Imagine you have an attack score of +15. Your opponent, a savage brute, has an AC of 20 and his companions all have ACs between 10-15. Does this fight even interest you? You’d hit with almost every attack. It might be ok if this was a rare, one-off situation, but imagine that this was how combat shaped up every single time. Personally, I’d lose interest.

Yet this is exactly what’s happening during skill challenges at gaming tables everywhere. We’re so concerned with being really, really good at a couple of skills that when it comes time to use them we are almost guaranteed automatic success. Using Stealth to move undetected or using Athletics to climb any wall under any circumstance can be very cool and a lot of fun, but training the skills we’re already good at just makes using those skills a bore.

During character creation you get to train 3-5 skills. In most cases we train the skills we think we’re going to use the most often or the ones that we already have a pretty good score in. But the more I’ve been thinking about this approach the more I see it as making the wrong choice.

By selecting training in the skills that we’re already good at we’re just punishing ourselves. The thing that we need to be most mindful of when we’re choosing which skills to train is which skills are tied to our best ability scores. If you’re class focuses on Dexterity then your starting Dex is likely to be pretty decent. And every time you can increase an ability score you’re likely to add points to Dex since it’s the one you use most often. By increasing your Dex you’re also increasing all skills that use Dex. So why taking training in Dex-based skills?

Let’s assume that at level 1 your highest ability score is (at least) an 18. That means that any skill tied to that ability starts off at 4. Assuming that you don’t have any other modifiers from your race, feats, equipment or magical items that 4 still gives you a 50% chance at succeeding at a hard DC (since a hard DC for level 1-3 is 15).

By the time you’ve reached level 8 you’ve most likely improved your best ability score by two points (+1 at level 4 and +1 at level 8). So in addition to the +1 for half your level you’ve just received another +1. So a skill that was only 4 at level 1 is now at 9 at level 8. Now you’ve got a 55% chance of making a hard DC (since the hard DC for level 7-9 is 19).

Don’t forget that in both of the above examples the moderate DC is 5 less than the hard DC so you’ve got a 75% chance of success at level 1 and an 80% chance of success at level 8. These are really good odds, all things considered.

If you’ve likely to achieve success 50% of the time do you really need to take training in this skill? Adding the +5 means that you’ll automatically make a skill check of moderate or easy difficulty. It also means that you’re unlikely to fail a hard check.

What we need to do is close the gap between our best skills and our worst skills. We need to look at the skills that rely on our worst ability scores and shore them up. Skills that rely on ability scores of 8 or 10 need all the help they can get. By taking skill training you’re improving your chance of success by 25%. These low ability scores are not likely to get improved as you level up so if you don’t taking training in them they’re never going to get any better. The odds will never be in your favour during a skill challenge if you need to rely on these skills. And the gap between your best skills and your worst skills will continue to widen as your best attributes continue to improve.

So the next time you’re creating a character don’t automatically take skill training in the skills that already have the highest numbers, try training the skills that need the most help. It may not mean automatic success in your best skill, but it will mean that you’re more likely to succeed when rolling on many of the others.

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1 Ocampo February 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Although skill challenges, as depicted on the rulebooks, should be skipped most of the time, because they do require a very skilled DM so they don’t feel boring or forced.

2 Jak Danels February 8, 2013 at 3:22 pm

It could be that WotC has updated the skill challenge difficulty check by level since this article was written. The reference I have been using is, from 9/8/2010.

In this reference, at level 1, moderate DC is 12, and hard is 19. An untrained skill in your primary stat for a hard DC gives you a 30% success rate, while training in that skill would provide for a 55% success rate.

Similarly at level 9, moderate DC is 17, and hard is 25. At this point, an untrained skill only allows for a 25% success rate. Training in that skill increases this to 50%.

While I agree that characters shouldn’t only train their best skills, the game is designed for characters to be very good at something. Given that the number of failures to drop a skill challenge is fixed at 3, regardless of challenge difficulty level, the consequences of NOT having max skills can be severe.

I think skill challenges are actually harder for the characters than combat. How often as a DM do you throw a combat encounter at players where their best case odds of success are 50%? Combat hinges a party’s damage per round over the course of several rounds. Skill challenges are three strikes and you are out.

I advise players to both select something they are very good at, bolster something they aren’t, and make sure to take their character concept and backstory into consideration as well.

3 Camelot February 9, 2013 at 12:32 am

This article is a little outdated, since the DCs for skill checks were evened out to being 8/12/19 at level 1 for easy/medium/hard checks, and skill challenges were somewhat refined with the addition of “advantages”. Now an untrained skill with a primary stat will only succeed at a hard DC 30% of the time, which won’t do if that’s what you imagine to be a special talent of your character. Instead of always doing one or the other, I’d say try to choose some skills that use your primary stats and some that use your dump stats, to balance yourself out a bit while still being really good at a couple things.

4 Ameron (Derek Myers) February 11, 2013 at 10:26 am

Thanks to everyone who commented.

I realize that the specific DCs referenced in the article have changed since we first ran this article in 2009. However, DCs aside the overall sentiment of the article is still valid (in my opinion) which is why I choose to rerun it.

If you train the skills that are tied to your best ability scores it will likely mean guaranteed success with that skill in all but the most extreme cases. Personally I find this really boring. It means that the DM must put stuff into an encounter to challenge you and you alone with your amazing skill check, or that you automatically succeed when the DM puts stuff into an encounter to challenge the rest of the party.

Meanwhile the skills tied to the lowest ability scores will be so low that players will need to roll incredibly high to even have a prayer of gaining a success with these skills. When this happens I find that players won’t have their PC take actions tied to really low skills for (justifiable) fear of failure. Sometimes this is simply not an option and in those cases the PC will face serious peril (e.g., Athletics to climb, Endurance to avoid drowning, Stealth to hide from overwhelming odds).

By training the skills tied to the lower attributes it keeps the gap between the best and worst skills a lot closer, thereby giving the PC a greater chance of success regardless of what skill is needed. It also removes the belief that you can’t or shouldn’t take any action that isn’t tied to your very best skills.

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